Seeing Ourselves in ‘The End of the Affair’


When Solomon wanted to warn his sons against adultery, he told a story:

For at the window of my house I have looked out through my lattice. . . . I have perceived among the youths, a young man lacking sense.

Thus the Teacher recounts a tale of a simpleminded man and an enticing accomplice, who “drink their fill of love” while hidden from their covenant partners. It seems like all is wine and roses, until the narrative fades: “All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to slaughter. . . . He does not know that it will cost him his life.”

We aren’t allowed to see the end of the tale, the ultimate fate of the lovers. This uncertainty could be intentional on Solomon’s part; temptation, after all, makes the future difficult to see.

Hate More Than Love

Though the British novelist Graham Greene didn’t write his 1951 novel The End of the Affair with the same didactic purpose as King Solomon, his story equally illustrates the turbulent aftermath of sexual immorality. Set in the middle of World War II, the story is told via the first-person narration of journalist Maurice Bendrix.

In the opening lines, Bendrix warns the reader, “This is a record of hate far more than love.” Through his memories, we learn of his adulterous relationship with Sarah Miles, the wife of his friend Henry. Their liaisons went unabated and undetected, until the day Sarah suddenly stopped. The novel opens some time after the end of their affair, and during a chance meeting Henry confides in Maurice that he is worried about Sarah. In a moment of literary irony, Henry asks Maurice to investigate to ensure Sarah isn’t being unfaithful. Confused and bitter over Sarah ending their relationship, Maurice agrees, selfishly hoping to discover whatever, or whomever, had come between him and Sarah.

Two enigmas drive the novel. Why did Sarah stop the affair, and what is she doing now, years after breaking off her relationship with Bendrix? The pursuit of answers, and the moral consequences those answers bring, gives us a narrative that ends not with lust or betrayal, but with God and grace.

Demands of Lust

The End of the Affair was allegedly written out of Greene’s experience. This is easy to believe, since the novel consistently offers profound commentary on adultery and its personal effects. One of the most striking illustrations is Bendrix’s inability to separate in his mind the difference between lust and hate. His passion for Sarah has the physical appearance of love, but his real desire is to “posses” her in a fundamentally self-oriented way.

He’s an insecure, paranoid, and jealous lover: “She was as loyal to her lovers as she was to Henry,” Maurice says, “but what should have provided me with some comfort (for undoubtedly she would be loyal to me too) angered me. . . . I refused to believe that love could take any other form but mine: I measured love by the extent of my jealousy.”

No amount of sexual satisfaction can offer him enough reassurance that Sarah is devoted to him, because Sarah the subject has been gradually replaced by Sarah the object. Love that seeks to crucify itself for the sake of the beloved has given way to lust, which consumes and then demands.

It’s impossible not to hear the voice of King David’s son Amnon, whose lust for Tamar presented itself as love—at least until Amnon’s craving had been met: “Then Amnon hated her with very great hatred, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her” (2 Sam. 13:15). Did Amnon, or Maurice, fall out of love? No, they simply possessed and consumed. Both men got what they wanted. But almost immediately, the satisfaction turned to rot in their souls.

Love vs. Lust

Love and lust are always antithetical. Just as greater intimacy is the natural consequence of covenant lovemaking, so greater alienation and animosity are the natural consequences of sexual immorality. Love gives, but lust only takes.

Lust blinds Maurice to Sarah’s wounded searching. Her numerous past infidelities bespeak a restless heart, one looking for a love that always seems one step ahead of her. Her secret, why she ended the affair, becomes a cross for her to bear. In the fullness of the story, the contrast between Sarah and Maurice becomes clear, and it’s a contrast of irony. Sarah, the one who broke it off, is actually the one who really loves.

But Greene’s novel isn’t just about the nature of love and lust. Love is indeed the ultimate subject of the book, but through Sarah, Greene reminds us that the love from which all others emanate is the love of God. Bendrix’s clutching investigation of Sarah leads him in the end to Sarah’s pursuit of God. Though I won’t spoil key moments of the story, Bendrix discovers that it was not really Sarah who ended the affair, but God. While this leads Sarah toward something like a spiritual awakening, it leads Bendrix, a proclaimed atheist, into bitterness.

But this bitterness takes him toward the “hound of heaven.” The novel’s ending doesn’t explicitly lay out the fate of Bendrix’s atheism, but its concluding paragraph reminds us of what C. S. Lewis warned young atheists concerning God’s “unscrupulousness.” In the end, not even sin is enough to keep the Father locked out.

Subdued by a Greater Love

The End of the Affair is an essential English novel, among the most profoundly spiritual works of the 20th century. As we’re drawn into a vivid parable of sin, brokenness, and redemption, we ought to be reminded that the imagination is often the most moral faculty we posses.

Adultery is alluring not because it makes good logical sense, but because we see in our imagination its offer of happiness, secrecy, thrill, and fulfillment.

It’s one thing to know propositionally that adultery is sin and lust wrecks lives. Virtually no Christian who makes shipwreck of his family or ministry simply forgets this information. Instead, the downward spiral is preceded by a failure to imagine rightly the end of sin. In Maurice’s cruel possessiveness and moral disillusionment we see both ourselves and also an imaginative reminder of fallen man’s tendency to, as Jonathan Edwards said, “collapse back on itself.” Adultery is alluring not because it makes good logical sense, but because we see in our imagination its offer of happiness, secrecy, thrill, and fulfillment. The heart is where temptation lives, and it’s in the heart that it must be subdued by a greater love. 

Christians sometimes dismiss fiction as a distraction. Why read a fairy tale when there are other helpful books about how to live the Christian life, or how to read Scripture? But such an attitude not only misunderstands human nature, it also misunderstands Scripture. Solomon—not to mention Jesus himself—understood the power of a story to captivate and impress in our consciences a wakefulness that propositional arguments cannot always reach.

The broken souls who inhabit The End of the Affair have lessons for us, and they are lessons worth re-learning—lest we, like the fool Solomon watched, take dark paths by the twilight, and lose our very lives. 

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